there is a sense of joy, freedom and innocence within me when I watch and participate in their soaring energy and spirit.”
Voice of the community
Nelson, 64, was born and grew up on the north side of “Juke Joint Row” in West Memphis, but he spent a lot of time with family and friends in two Memphis neighborhoods — Soulsville and Binghampton.
“A 25-cent bus ride from West Memphis would place me at my uncle’s house on McLemore at Wellington where I spent afternoons and weekends. It was better than going home.”
Nelson’s South Memphis family were known as the drumming Cunninghams, including his cousin, Carl, who died in the 1967 plane crash with Otis Redding. As a kid, Nelson met such blues legends as Furry Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf and Albert King.
“Memphis music was like therapy for me,” Nelson said. “It restored my soul.”
Nelson said his father spent a lot of time drinking and gambling at juke joints. Young Henry spent a lot of time trying to get away or planning to run away from abuse and neglect.
“I look at some of these kids and think, that used to be me,” Nelson said. “I know a lot of them are experiencing things that are unthinkable. It’s heartbreaking. The art garden is an oasis for them, a place where they can just be kids.”
Growing up, Nelson found his oasis on the radio.
He loved listening to Jack Buck call St. Louis Cardinals games on KMOX. “I couldn’t just hear the game, I could smell it. I had my own seat at the ballpark.”
He loved listening to Father Don Mowery “Talk It Out” every Sunday evening on WHBQ. “Smile,” Mowery told teens across the Mid-South as he signed off. “God loves you and so do I.”
When Nelson was about 10, he called Father Don on the air and told him that he wanted to run away from home and why. “He sort of talked me off the ledge,” Nelson said. “I loved that man.” Mowery died earlier this year.
Young Henry’s favorite radio station was WDIA in Memphis, the nation’s first station programmed by and for AfricanAmericans. “Back then, radio truly was the voice of the community,” Nelson said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
Binghampton with a ‘p’
As a teenager, Nelson spent a lot of time visiting friends in Binghampton. He loved the neighborhood’s cozy feel — small houses close together, lots of backyard gardens, shade-tree mechanics and extended families.
“It was the cookouts, tag football, and the ability to walk the neighborhood that always felt like home,” he said. “I’ve always had an affinity for Binghampton.”
That’s Binghampton with a ‘p’. Longtime neighborhood residents know there were and are two Binghamptons.
The older, more demographically diverse and economically blessed west side known as Binghamton — named for the area’s first settler, 19th century Irish farmer W.H. Bingham.
And the younger, more distressed and segregated east side known as Binghampton, literally across the tracks where people settled in shotgun houses, housing projects and low-income apartment complexes.
Today, the population of the west side’s Census tract 27 is about half foreign-born and 40 percent white, with a median household income of about $40,000 and about 10 percent unemployment.
The population of the east side’s Census tract 28 is about 85 percent African-American with a median household income of about $22,000. More than 75 percent of the children live in poverty, and 1 in 4 have been there a year or less.
The Carpenter Art Garden is planted in the heart of the east side, a neighborhood filled with blight and peril, beauty and possibility in the middle of a city filled with the same.
“Henry has an innate sense and understanding of the spirit of the garden, why it was created, and why maintaining that spirit is crucial to its continued success, growth,” Harris said. “The garden is above all a place to love and be loved and he understands that.”
The place I call home
Before Harris turned it into an art garden for kids seven years ago, the lot on Carpenter was filled with trash and broken glass and served as a shortcut to a drug house one street over.
Before Harris and others turned it into a neighborhood arts center for kids,
A garden grows in Binghampton
Nelson left Memphis twice over the decades — once for love and once for a job. The community and work he loves always brought him back. It keeps calling him. After he heard Tray’s poem, it called him back to Binghampton.
He visited the art garden. He began volunteering. Last year he joined the board. Last Monday, he took over Harris’ administrative duties so she could devote more time to the kids and art.
“As an African-American, it is obviously impossible to grow up in Memphis or America and not feel the stress of separation — not only between black and white people but also the served and the under-served,” Nelson said.
“But when you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world.
“Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be. This place is called an art garden, but what we’re doing here is art therapy. It’s healing and restorative physically, mentally and emotionally.
“That’s why I’m here. I used to be a kid just like these kids. One day one of these kids is going to come back here as an adult and become CAG’s executive director. I am beyond hopeful. I can see it. I believe it will happen.”
Kids gather in front of Purple House at the Carpenter Art Garden. JIM WEBER/THE